Diving Into the Wreck: Poems 1971-1972
Studies for an Actress and Other Poems
The first poet is very interesting. In order to understand her, we must go into a certain room in Manhattan where a light is on over a table. A serious woman is sitting there, writing a lesson, which is the lesson of her life. On the paper we observe free verse stanzas in a near-colloquial idiom with a somewhat scientific vocabulary; they have an anonymous appearance. An occasional cockney rhyme (sister / glamor) comes up. Reading the lines gives us the illusion, at moments, of having gained an objective picture of events, even of our own thoughts:
In a bookstore on the East Side
I read a veteran’s testimony:
introduces a fact, and related materials are used to describe thought later in the poem:
Pieces of information, like this one
blow onto the heap
This is well done, so that we really believe while we are reading it that it is how thoughts behave. In this instance the idiom has justified its impersonal quality by an ability to produce convincing objective effects. It is the clean diction used by all good reporters (the method of Tolstoy when he is reporting), and it is insidious because of its invisibility. The subjective factor, with all its distortions, appears to have been edited out.
What we think of as diction is something that brings us quickly to the boil on an instinctive level, by throwing colored words at us in a way for which we are unprepared, as in the writing of Rimbaud or of Gerard Manley Hopkins; or a rigid, thrilling block of modern words, with a granite frost on it, which smashes us intellectually, like a phrase of Robert Lowell’s. Diction can then be identified by the autonomous life it leads; the poetry is already partly about the way it is written, and it becomes more difficult to paraphrase the content away from the page.
When a poet takes up a simpler idiom, like the one used by Adrienne Rich, subjects are of great importance. The presumption is that the poet has especially chosen a line that will allow her to cover ground of all kinds. Even so, we must be moderate in the expectations we form, for there are other difficulties in such a line—which, although fragmented, could be called a narrative line—and I shall try to show some of them. It becomes dangerous, rather than insidious, when there is insufficient fresh material within it; originally it did the work of prose and tends to be one-dimensional.
We must examine what is going on in the poems.
A cast of three or four men and women is living a life very close to the life of the newspapers; Manhattan is a living newspaper. There are refrigerators, airplanes, phone booths, hypodermics, chemicals, molecules, bombs—and subways, prisons, rooms where people all over the world become careworn in their efforts to face up to reality. But because these people, places, and objects are so little distinguished and personalized, we …
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Women and Poetry November 29, 1973